Maurice’s Piggie Park lawsuit alleges racism, sexual harassment at Columbia restaurant

Two former employees of Maurice’s Piggie Park are suing the famed BBQ restaurant chain over alleged racism and sexual harassment they encountered in the workplace.

The lawsuit filed Monday by the Strom Law Firm says that a woman who worked at the Piggie Park on Clemson Road was forced into a sexual relationship with manager Jeff Harrison in exchange for a pay raise in February and March 2022. When the woman tried to refuse his advances, Harrison “forced himself onto her before becoming belligerent, violent and descending into racist rants and threats,” according to a press release announcing the lawsuit.

A second lawsuit was filed against Maurice’s last month by a second employee who said he attempted to stop the harassment of his friend. When confronted about his behavior, “the Piggie Park manager went off the deep end,” calling the employee “a ‘n****r’ and ‘porch monkey’ while threatening to break his jaw,” the release said. Both employees are African American.

“It’s appalling but, sadly, not surprising. After all, the Piggie Park is known more for its blatant racism than its sauce,” said the plaintiffs’ attorney, Bakari Sellers. He said the woman was treated as “an object that they owned and they could do whatever they wanted to her.”

Company President Lloyd Bessinger on Wednesday said Maurice’s took quick action when the incidents alleged in the lawsuit were brought to management’s attention, and Harrison was fired a year ago.

“We don’t condone or accept any sexual behavior like that or intimidation by employees against other employees, or customers for that matter,” Bessinger said. “We’re a local family business that’s been in Columbia over 60 years, and we’ve never had any issues like this before. We just want to serve the community, be part of the community and serve great BBQ.”

Any response to the lawsuit would come from Maurice’s legal counsel, Bessinger said. Harrison could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

Maurice’s Piggie Park for years was the center of racial controversy. Late owner Maurice Bessinger was a prominent and long-time advocate for segregationist views, who appealed to the Supreme Court to defend his right to refuse service to Black customers after passage of the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s. His restaurants long displayed the Confederate flag in front of them and offered diners pamphlets defending a “biblical view of slavery.” After Bessinger’s children took over the chain of barbecue restaurants, the flags were removed.

The lawsuit argues the manager’s behavior shows the restaurant “continued to embrace and behave in a manner exemplifying their discriminatory beliefs and carried forward a well-honed pattern of disrespect and disregard for persons of color.”

“Bigotry and intimidation like this has no place in the 21st Century,” said attorney Amy Gaffney with the law firm Gaffney Lewis. “It’s time the Piggie Park enterprise and its leadership learned that lesson once and for all.”